leader dies at 83
Robert J. Pfeiffer led
the company through its
transition from sugar
Robert J. "Bobby" Pfeiffer, 83, who began working at age 12 as a deck hand aboard tugs and steamers and became the chairman of Hawaii's largest shipping company and "Big Five" corporation Alexander & Baldwin, Inc., died Friday at his home in Orinda, Calif., after a long illness.
Nearly 38 years of his 58-year career were spent in leadership roles at Alexander & Baldwin Inc. and its subsidiary, Matson Navigation Co. Inc. He was chairman emeritus of both companies.
Robert Pfeiffer: Friends recall his devotion to A&B, Matson and maritime community|
Under his leadership, A&B made the transition from sugar to real estate development and management, starting with the sale of the Wailea Resort on Maui.
But Pfeiffer never forgot the company's roots in agriculture and led the battle to keep A&B in the plantation business.
Pfeiffer died with his family at his side, Allen Doane, A&B president and chief executive officer, said in announcing Pfeiffer's death yesterday.
Pfeiffer was born in Suva, Fiji, a descendent of eight generations of sea captains, and he had a lifelong love of the sea, sailors and ships. Friends called him "an old sea dog."
Walter A. Dods Jr., longtime A&B board member, First Hawaiian Bank chairman and CEO and friend of Pfeiffer, said, "Hawaii has lost one of its great leaders. Bobby was a kamaaina in every sense of the word. He had a great love for Hawaii and it showed in everything he did." Pfeiffer became president of Matson Navigation Co. in 1973. He directed a $400 million capital investment program that turned Matson into one of the world's most efficient marine transportation companies.
In the early 1960s, during negotiations with International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union President Harry Bridges, Pfeiffer helped develop the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement, which established procedures for handling of containerized cargo.
Brad Mulholland, Matson vice chairman, said Pfeiffer "was one of those rare individuals who significantly influenced an industry, a company and several generations of employees, both ashore and afloat."
"He was completely devoted to A&B, to Matson and to the maritime community, having risen through the ranks to become an industry giant," said A&B chairman Charles M. Stockholm.
"Bob Pfeiffer carried A&B forward with the tenacity and devotion that would have endeared him to our founders," Doane said.
Pfeiffer became president of A&B in October of 1979 and chief executive officer three months later. The company's annual revenue and assets nearly tripled through modernization and diversification under his leadership.
He made the Hawaiian word imua, "go forward," his personal motto.
Pfeiffer grew up on the Big Island, learning to speak Hawaiian, "otherwise you couldn't eat," he would explain. He also learned to dance hula.
Pfeiffer's family moved to Honolulu in 1929 and he began doing odd jobs at the waterfront. He was working summers for Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co., Ltd. by age 12 and within three years earned a license to skipper harbor tugs.
Despite his family's seafaring history, he wanted to attend West Point and make the Army his career. He transferred to McKinley High School as a sophomore because of its ROTC program.
He received a West Point appointment, but turned it down to help his family after his father lost his job.
Pfeiffer served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and after the war married Mary Elizabeth Worts, also a Navy officer, at Koloa Union Church on Kauai.
Pfeiffer joined Matson in 1956.
"He was a tough guy, yet compassionate. He never forgot a birthday. He was Navy disciplined but could talk story with the best and do the hula," Mulholland said.
Associates said Pfeiffer kept regular offices at Matson headquarters in San Francisco until shortly before his death. He was "a very thorough man" and prepared information for his obituary several months ago, one said.
In the lead to the obituary, Pfeiffer is quoted as saying, "Old sailors never die, they just drop anchor."
Associates say he thrived on life, as he did on work, singing and playing the ukulele, running four miles four times a week into his 80s and learning to fly.
He was a board member or leader of numerous civic and professional organizations. Since he had no formal education after high school, he was most proud of three honorary degrees among his many national and local awards.
The only commercial vessel built in a U.S. shipyard since 1984 also was named for him in 1992: the $129 million Matson ship MV R.J. Pfeiffer.
Among his causes, he helped to save the Hawaii Theatre and to establish the Hawaii Maritime Center.
C. Dudley Pratt, who worked with Pfeiffer and Henry Walker Jr. to start the Maritime Center, said Pfeiffer "was a very personable person with a lot of warmth and sincerity ... He loved to tell stories and he had a lot of stories to tell. He had a very interesting life."
Pfeiffer is survived by his children, Elizabeth "Betsy" Tumbas and her husband, Stephen; Margaret "Marga" Hughes and her husband William; George W. "Skipper" Pfeiffer and his wife, Julie; Kathleen "Kappy" Pfeiffer; and nine grandchildren. His wife died Dec. 4 last year, five days after the couple's 57th wedding anniversary.
Services are pending. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Hawaii Maritime Center, the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien-Robert J. Pfeiffer Memorial Fund or to one's favorite charity. The Jeremiah O'Brien is a National Liberty Ship Memorial in San Francisco.